Sight-impaired ringers

Handbell musicians often assume it’s OK to enlarge handbell music for sight-impaired ringers. However, copyright law restricts the right to copy as follows:

1) What: literary (not musical) works
2) Who can copy: institutions that exist to serve the blind, like the Braille Institute
3) For: the legally blind

So, on several counts, the copying we typically see in handbell choirs is illegal. As a practical matter, handbell publishers often grant permission to enlarge sheet music, but the burden is on the user to ask. Such copying isn’t covered by fair use, or any other exemption. If you’ll take my word for it, you can skip down the page to find suggestions for how to stay in compliance. Otherwise, here’s the relevant part of the statute, with my comments [in brackets] and emphasis in italics:

Copyright Law of the United States of America
and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code
§ 121 . Limitations on exclusive rights: Reproduction for blind or other people with disabilities

(a) Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106 [exclusive rights in copyrighted works], it is not an infringement of copyright for an authorized entity to reproduce or to distribute copies or phonorecords of a previously published, nondramatic literary work if such copies or phonorecords are reproduced or distributed in specialized formats exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities.

(b)(1) Copies or phonorecords to which this section applies shall
(A) not be reproduced or distributed in a format other than a specialized format exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities;
(B) bear a notice that any further reproduction or distribution in a format other than a specialized format is an infringement; and
(C) include a copyright notice identifying the copyright owner and the date of the original publication.

[text omitted – irrelevant to performing handbell musicians – it pertains to teaching the disabled in schools]

(d) For purposes of this section, the term—
(1) “authorized entity” means a nonprofit organization or a governmental agency that has a primary mission to provide specialized services relating to training, education, or adaptive reading or information access needs of blind or other persons with disabilities;
(1) “blind or other persons with disabilities” means individuals who are eligible or who may qualify in accordance with the Act entitled “An Act to provide books for the adult blind”, approved March 3, 1931 (2 U.S.C. 135a; 46 Stat. 1487) to receive books and other publications produced in specialized formats;
(2) “print instructional materials” has the meaning given under section 674(e)(3)(C) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act; and
(4) “specialized formats” means
(A) braille, audio, or digital text which is exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities; and
(B) with respect to print instructional materials, includes large print formats when such materials are distributed exclusively for use by blind or other persons with disabilities.

So what options do we have to support a sight-impaired ringer?

• Ask permission – Handbell publishers are usually generous in granting permission to enlarge sheet music, when asked. There are relatively few handbell publishers, so email them to ask for permission to copy any piece for this purpose only. File their responses, and you won’t have to ask about every piece of music.
• Buy a separate copy for the sight-impaired ringer – If two ringers are sharing copies, the music may be too far away for one of them to read.
• Improve lighting – If room light is insufficient, provide stand lights. I especially like the Mighty-Bright LED orchestra lights sold by Jeffers and others, but there are many options.
• Assignments – Give the sight-impaired ringer an easier part to read, such as D5 E5. Notes at either the bottom or top of the staff tend to be easier to discern, especially in thick chords. Even a ringer with bifocals may struggle to read A5 B5.

As a bifocal wearer, I had difficulty focusing to mallet bell trees. I’ve started wearing my computer glasses (single-vision, focused for close work) to play bell tree and table solos. This has the added benefit of blurring the audience and minimizing distractions.

Ringers struggling to see sheet music, but who also need to follow a director, may find it worthwhile to invest in handbell glasses. The following was written by Vicky Vandervoort, an optometrist and handbell director, and reprinted here with her permission:

“If your ringers in this predicament are willing to spend the money for a separate pair of ‘bell glasses,’ have them stand in their normal ringing position and measure from their eyes to the music in inches (centimeters if you can, but no problem if you can’t).  Then have them ask their optometrist/ophthalmologist to write a prescription with the top part being their normal distance prescription and the bottom part in a (technical lingo approaching) ‘flat-top 35 segment set at mid-pupil’ with the power to be determined by your measurement (s/he’ll know how to convert this into dioptic power).  The reason you want to have the segment set so high is because the person is usually in a slight chin-depressed posture while ringing, and you want the intermediate segment easily accessible (i.e., no head movement).  Then when they need to look up, they can see the director clearly through the top portion.”

What if the ringer in question is not only sight-impaired, but legally blind? The Overtones issue of March/April 2009 contains an article about the bell choir at Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts. The director, Adele Trytko, is doing ground-breaking work there in teaching the blind to ring, helping them not only make music, but develop life skills. Her teaching methods are summarized on the website of the Denton Bell Band, which contains resources for teaching people with special needs to ring.

Some of her methods, in brief:
• Work individually with each ringer on his/her part, outside the full ensemble
• Play along with each ringer on the piano
• Provide recordings for ringers to listen to as they learn their part
• Add words to every piece to use as cues
• Demonstrate techniques hands-on
• Set clear goals, like ringing in a festival

Blind ringers may find it more comfortable to shake with a sideways motion, as reaching forward feels precarious. Even sighted ringers may prefer this approach to shaking. Blind ringers can even learn to play handbell solos, with tactile landmarks. If you’re working with the blind, you’ll find additional teaching resources on the Perkins School website.

Thanks to Vicky Vandervoort for her contribution to this article, and to Adele Trytko for her pioneering work in training blind handbell musicians.

Copyright © 2013 Nancy Kirkner,